Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Prove you're "smart"

 I don't remember signing up for it, but one of the emails I get is the Quora Digest--basically, people ask a question and the community responds, with the highest-voted answers rising to the top (at least, I think that's how it works). The first question in the email this morning caught my attention: 

What would you do if your interviewer says "Prove to me that you're smart." 

The top answer was a good one, because it looked at the question in terms of trying to understand what the interviewer might be trying to glean from such a question, and his assertion was that it's a test of ego and self-image: 

Consider these possible answers.

1. “I’m way smarter than my current co-workers. They’re always screwing up and causing me problems.”

2. “I don’t really think I’m that smart. But I work hard.”

3. “My standardized test scores, college and graduate studies, areas of research and past employment record are all consistent with a smart person.”

#1 is a red flag since the candidate is putting the blame for his problems on his co-workers. #2 indicates the candidate might have low self-esteem or has difficulties being objective about his performance (e.g. due to the Dunning-Kruger effect). #3 is the most objective answer, but it does come across as being a bit cold. A follow up like “I’ve always surrounded myself by intelligent, talented people in order to learn from them,” might warm it up a bit.

I don't think he's wrong here, but even #3 has its pitfalls--depending on the way an answer like that is delivered, it can come across as bragging or insecurity as you trot out your bona fides. 

I also don't think that there's a "right" answer here, and depending on the interviewer, they may well be looking for a particular answer (some might love answer #2 above, for instance, because they appreciate humility and hard work--and just as a side note, one of the sharpest bosses I've had would often preface statements with something self-deprecating about not being the smartest guy). So I'm sure it depends on the company you're interviewing with--and the extent to which the interviewer has an agenda (if they do). Because while I don't think there's a totally right or wrong answer, I'm sure some interviewers absolutely do think there's a right answer. 


Backing out of the meta-level and trying not to overthink this (he says before writing three long paragraphs), I was formulating my own answer in the shower this morning, and I guess it would be something like this:

When I was younger, in elementary school and even through high school, it just seemed obvious to me that I was smart. I got good grades, and they came relatively easily, and I did well on standardized tests and went off to a very good school. Getting there was the start, though, of reevaluating what smart was and whether I was "smart," because my peers were also people who had always been very smart! People who would blow me away with their insight or their ability to grasp some abstract idea or the clever ways they could think on their feet. The coursework was hard, and the first semester I got my first B in a long, long time.

All of this helped me realize a few different things: first was the idea of multiple intelligences--that there are lots of different domains one can be "smart" in, and pretty much no one is great at all of them. We have this common-sense idea of "smart" as generalized intelligence that's just, well, smart. But that's an incomplete picture. And the other thing I realized is summed up in a quote that I only heard much later: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. I realized that being "smart," whatever that meant, wasn't enough to be successful. The idea of "growth mindset" wasn't something I would encounter until decades later, but on an intuitive level, I grasped that "being smart" was not the be-all, end-all, and that I needed to put in as much time as it took in order to master the material. And I did! 

I also distinctly remember a conversation with a friend of mine, either freshman or sophomore year, and he was a really brilliant guy, but he said that his goal in a class was never an A, although he knew he was going to get an A. His goal in a class was to know the material so well that he could teach it to someone else. This was an important reframing for me because I absolutely was someone who thought that getting the A was a sign of my success, of my intelligence. But of course--especially in the decades-long era of grade inflation we live in--it's a very crude sign that can mean a lot of different things. His comment helped me--slowly, I must admit, not all in a flash of insight--to reframe the purpose of being a student not as jumping through certain hoops to get the treat at the end but as part of a process of mastery. 


For the purpose of the interview, it would probably be good now to circle back to the idea of multiple intelligences and talk about the things I'm good at and some of the areas I'm not as good at, but this post is already getting long, and that feels even more like bragging than any of the things I've already written that look, at least a little, like bragging. 


I imagine it's clear from my answer, but if I was an interviewer asking this kind of question, I think I would be most interested in the thought process of answering the question, and to the extent that I'm "looking for" a particular answer, it would be the ability to go deeper into the question, to think with nuance rather than just reaching for "proof" that someone is "smart." That is, show me how you think about the question, and demonstrate your intelligence in the process. 

But then again, that's also just one particular form of intelligence, isn't it?

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